I received word this week that my favorite restaurant in Shanghai – La Na Thai – had fallen victim to that unstoppable Asian drive to build and modernize. According to their web site, the lease was up and so they were shown the door. The site was leveled and prepared for yet another luxury high rise hotel.
La Na Thai was one of three restaurants in a complex known as Face Bar, an Asian “chain” with locations in Beijing, Bangkok and Jakarta. In the case of the Shanghai version, it was set in a 1930’s mansion in the leafy French Concession, the most urbane part of the city. The building was set on the grounds of the Rui Jin Hotel, a very sophisticated location popular with the upper class of Shanghai and I’ve written here on several occasions about the quality of the food and more importantly the ambience. Simple things like sitting on the patio in late summer with the lanterns in the trees and the bats flitting overhead dining on the mosquitoes or lounging on the overstuffed chairs in the bar listening to the Germans.
My first visit was with my friend Matt and lacking a reservation we were relegated to the Indian restaurant as La Na was full. And what a relegation it was, outstanding Northern Indian food served in a tent decorated in the high style of a Mughal imperial hunting expedition. That night it was busy, and we sat near two young men who would stop their conversation and eating every so often and declare a “break” in which both would furiously pound away on their Blackerrys, communicating some sort of vital business information to their friends back in the world.
La Na though was special, it was the only restaurant set in the mansion, and every meal there evoked the calm and peace its original owner must have felt coming home after a long day of business down in the nearby commercial center. Sitting there dining on outstanding South Asian cuisine, you could almost picture the slippered servants silently shuffling from room to room with Gin Martinis and the day’s international newspapers.
I got very brave on my last visit and made my own reservation and after dickering back and forth on my desired time the young woman on the other end finally penciled me in at 6:45 and ended the call with a summary, “Four people for Mr. Terry at 6:45 PM and you must be gone by 8:00. Gone, okay?” As it turned out, I was still making a point of slowly finishing my Chocolate Rum Pot as 8:00 came and went.
I’m going to miss the food, the waiters and the Buddha in the hallway on the second floor. But mostly I’m going to miss a place I always looked forward to going to, languishing in, and following with a long walk back to the subway under a canopy of Plane Trees set amid little shops selling the highest fashion in the city. I suppose it was more the complete experience than the restaurant itself, but whatever, it’s simply another beautiful thing lost to progress.